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Democratic Dominatrix 

Janet Napolitano is breezing past her primary opponents. But the general election is a whole different story.

There are four warm bodies facing the members of the Pima County Democratic Party's Nucleus Club in tonight's gubernatorial candidate forum, but only three of them--former state senator and lobbyist Alfredo Gutierrez, doctor-cum-lawyer-cum-political activist Mark Osterloh and physician Mike Newcomb--are actually seeking the nomination.

In the fourth slot, filling in for Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, is Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez, a co-chair of Napolitano's campaign who uses a thick playbook to relay her candidate's positions on various questions from the audience. Janet sends her regrets, but she had a previous engagement at a benefit to fight breast cancer in Maricopa County.

The candidates promise to protect reproductive rights, improve and defend public schools, eliminate tax giveaways and deliver more state dollars to Pima County. But without the front-runner on stage, the debate lacks star power.

Napolitano's opponents complain that her absence is typical; Newcomb says he's only seen Napolitano at two of the roughly 20 candidate forums he's attended.

Napolitano has hardly been publicity-shy; her schedule has been packed with appearances around the state, including a visit to Tucson over the Independence Day holiday for the opening of the new Democratic Party headquarters. And her supporters offer the defense that she's still busy with her duties as the state's top lawyer. "If she came to all these events, they'd say she wasn't doing her job," says Rodriguez.

Nor is the attorney general ducking every forum. Earlier the same day as the Nucleus Club event, she climbed into the ring at a tourism industry get-together in Maricopa County. She engaged her opponents at a major debate last weekend and her calendar includes several bookings with the other candidates between now and the September 10 primary.

But Napolitano certainly hasn't made sharing the stage with her opponents a top priority. Given her wide base of support and high poll numbers, she seems content to let the other contenders run up and down the field, confident that they won't be scoring any touchdowns.


NAPOLITANO HAS PLENTY of reason to be confident about her primary challenge.

Arizona voters demonstrated their willingness to vote for female candidates in 1998, when five women won the top five statewide seats up for grabs. She was the only Democrat to win statewide office, beating Republican Tom McGovern, a deputy AG whose campaign had been damaged in a primary mudslide.

Although Napolitano, 44, would have made a formidable incumbent, she was ready to move up. "I don't live my life to be safe," she says. "I thought Arizona needed a change in direction. With all humility, given my experience both as AG and U.S. attorney, I'm the right person at the right time."

The party establishment appears to agree. State Democratic Party chair Jim Pedersen, who has been lined up behind Napolitano since he won his post last year, has encouraged potential candidates to seek other jobs. (Terry Goddard, who has twice sought the governor's seat, is running for the AG post Napolitano is surrendering, for instance.)

Along with law-enforcement and firefighter endorsements, she's sewed up the support of much of the state's union base. Those connections helped make her the first statewide candidate to file more than 4,000 $5 contributions to qualify for $409,950 in Clean Elections funding for the primary and an additional $614,930 in the general.

Napolitano has skillfully built her base as attorney general. She's grabbed headlines by taking on high-profile cases, such as her fraud case against the Baptist Foundation's Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of hundreds of millions of dollars. She settled a case against accounting firm Arthur Andersen that recovered $217 million for the bilked victims.

She targeted another favorite bogeyman, Qwest Communications, socking them with a consumer fraud lawsuit over complaints that the phone company would ignore complaints from customers who had been hit with unwanted service changes and charges.

She's spent settlement money strategically, such as a $1.1 million anti-trust settlement against Nine West, a women's shoe company, which she used to fund various sexual assault programs with the Department of Public Safety and the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault. The dispersal of similar settlement funds, as well as RICO dollars, has allowed her to build good will with various constituencies across the state.

Napolitano puts improving education at the top of her priorities, but adds that she wants to see the state diversify its economy, review its tax policies, improve its transportation networks and tackle environmental issues such as air and water quality as well as protecting open space.

She anticipates the state budget crunch will be the primary issue come January--and maybe even sooner, given that the rickety $6.5 billion budget assembled by state lawmakers has already begun to leak.

Napolitano says the state needs to be prepared to cut another 3 percent from state agencies and consider eliminating or consolidating some programs, although she declines to say which ones would face the ax. She also wants to review the state's complete tax code, including exemptions and credits, "to see if they still make economic sense. The goal ought to be to keep our taxes as low as possible on as broad a base as possible."

Napolitano has defended the death penalty in court. "It's the law of the land and as governor I will still enforce the death penalty," she says.

She's pro-choice, opposing both 24-hour waiting periods--"I think it's designed to interfere with the right of people's choice and I don't favor putting restrictions on abortions beyond which you'd put on any other medical procedure"--and parental notification requirements.

Napolitano opposes a voucher program for Arizona schools. "In Arizona, vouchers would just be a mechanism to suck even more resources away from the public schools."

To fund transportation projects, Napolitano says she'd be willing to ask voters to support a statewide half-cent sales tax or an increase in the gas tax. She says a statewide transportation impact fee on new housing is "not off the table."

"There's a big agenda out there, which I find exciting," Napolitano says.


NAPOLITANO'S MOST formidable challenger--the only one to break double-digits in the polls--is Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state senator who first won office in 1972.

During his 14 years at the statehouse, Gutierrez earned a rep as a senator who could blast Republicans on the chamber floor one day and work a deal with them the next. It's a skill that has served him well since he left the Legislature to form Jamieson and Gutierrez, a public relations and lobbying firm he sold last year.

Back for another run at public office, the 56-year-old Gutierrez is coming at Napolitano from the left, delivering a bluntly scripted populist message attacking corporate greed and right-wing incompetence. The educational system is collapsing. Social services are in crisis. Developers are raping the desert. Tax giveaways are starving the state.

"Think about it," he rasps over a cup of coffee. "This is the richest country in the history of the world, we've just come out of the greatest economic growth expansion in history. We are one of the richest states in the world. So how is it we're in a billion-dollar hole? The answer is they gave it away and they squandered it and they stole it."

To provide an infusion of cash and balance the teetering budget, Gutierrez calls for a wide range of taxes, from soda pop (it's such a competitive product that Coca-Cola will absorb the cost) to 1-900 phone-sex lines and massage parlors. He wants to see an end to the free ride for utilities that dirty Arizona's air while providing power for California.

Gutierrez is flatly pro-choice. He wants to see higher grazing leases on state trust land and says the Land Department has "just been selling land right and left" without good preservation planning. On education, he opposes vouchers--"most proponents of vouchers propose them so they don't have to invest in the public school system"--and calls the AIMS test a "cheap trick." To position himself against Napolitano, he came to Tucson to announce his opposition to the death penalty last month.

For all of his heated campaign rhetoric, Gutierrez is making little headway in his bid to grab attention. Even he concedes the campaign has "frankly been ignored by everyone," with the Napolitano camp, the party establishment and the media treating the September primary as a formality.

"I think that sense of inevitability is now being challenged," Gutierrez says. "Polls are beginning to change. I don't pretend to tell you they're narrowing to the point that I'm almost there, but there's a lot more coverage."

He's got a lot of ground to make up. In an survey of 200 Democrats across the state earlier this month, 58 percent of likely voters said they were supporting Napolitano, while just 12 percent said they'd vote for Gutierrez.


STILL, THAT'S better than Mark Osterloh, the Tucson physician who hovers around somewhere around 1 percent in most polls.

It takes more than those lousy numbers to knock the ever-present grin off Osterloh's face. He's got reason to smile: he's in the race thanks to Arizona's new Clean Elections program, which provides public dollars for candidates seeking state office. Osterloh helped draft the initiative, passed by a narrow majority of voters in 1998. As a result, by collecting more than 4,000 $5 contributions, Osterloh has $409,950 to spend introducing himself to Arizonans.

Born in Tucson, the 49-year-old Osterloh graduated from high school in Sierra Vista. After a year at ASU, he transferred to the UA, earning an undergrad in pharmacy in '75 and a medical degree specializing in ophthalmology in '79. Interested in healthcare expansion, he went back to school, earning a law degree in '83.

Ten years later, he was tapped to work on the Clinton administration's ill-fated national healthcare plan. After that effort collapsed, he worked with the late state Sen. Andy Nichols on the Healthy Arizona proposition passed by voters in 1996, but never implemented by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

By then, Osterloh was thoroughly hooked on politics. In 1998, he helped put the Clean Elections program on the ballot.

In 2000, he worked two other successful initiatives, Healthy Arizona 2, which expanded healthcare coverage using funds from the state's share of tobacco lawsuit settlement dollars, and Fair Districts, Fair Elections, which stripped the power of drawing political boundaries from state lawmakers and created a five-member panel to do the job. In the end, even Osterloh says the new state districts are still lopsided, but he's got an idea for another initiative to fix that when redistricting comes up again in 2010.

The success of the ballot drives hasn't translated into personal success for Osterloh. Running as a Democrat in a Republican-dominated northwest-side district, he lost a 1998 race for the state House of Representatives and a 2000 run at the state Senate.

But that was just a warm-up for Osterloh, who is riding his bike across the state in pursuit of voters.

Osterloh sees campaign finance as the mother of all reforms. It's a simple equation: Once politicians are no longer bought and paid for, lawmakers will be able to focus on good policy rather than bending to whim of special interests.

As governor, Osterloh would solve the budget problems with a major revamping of the tax system. He envisions a steeper progressive income-tax system that would attempt to calculate tax credits based on the average amount of sales and property taxes that low-income Arizonans pay.

Osterloh is pro-choice, although he says he'd take a poll to get the sense of the voters before he'd veto a parental notification bill.

If the Legislature balks at his agenda, Osterloh promises to take it to the people of Arizona through ballot drives. He's batting 1.000 in that department, which makes him the real mover and shaker in Arizona.

"I believe I've done more for this state than any of the candidates running in any of the parties," Osterloh says. "I've taken on the most difficult issues. The front runner in my race talks about the things she's done. Basically, everything she's done was her job, she got paid for it and she basically told her employees to go do it."


THERE'S ANOTHER DOCTOR in the house: Mike Newcomb, a 37-year-old physician specializing in elder care. A Philly native with working-class roots, Newcomb studied philosophy at NYU, then attended med school in Philadelphia. He served his last two years of residency at the UA in the early '90s and now runs a small eldercare biz that mainly provides house calls to nursing homes.

Blessed with Backstreet Boy good looks, Newcomb got his first taste of Arizona politics just two years ago, when he worked on the hopeless congressional bid of David Mendoza, the Democrat who lost to Republican Jeff Flake in a Maricopa County congressional campaign.

Newcomb's connections to that race led him to work on behalf of Mark Fleisher, who was then running to retain his post as party chair. Fleisher, now one of eight Democrats seeking the nomination for Southern Arizona's 7th Congressional District, lost the party post to Jim Pederson.

Having worked two losing campaigns, Newcomb decided it was time to seek the highest state office in Arizona. Why governor instead of, say, school board or state Legislature?

"That's the conventional way people look at politics and too many people approach life in that manner," says Newcomb. "I don't believe you have to approach life in small measures and incremental steps." As he sees it, the governor's office is "where my skill sets are most applicable."

Besides, he adds, "Why would I want to do an apprenticeship with a group of people who have run up a billion-dollar deficit and made us last in healthcare and last in education? Doesn't look like I'm going to learn much spending eight years there."

Newcomb talks a lot about helping working people and seniors. He wants to improve education and opposes vouchers. He supports a moratorium on the death penalty, followed by "a meaningful dialogue" to "see where it evolves." He wants Indian gaming to continue and opposing any deal that cuts the state in on a piece of the action.

Newcomb's poll numbers have remained in the single digits (although he is generally out-polling political veteran Osterloh). He remains confident the campaign will turn around once he qualifies for Clean Election funding.

"With the financial playing field leveled, it's going to boil down to execution," he imagines.

But even if he loses, Newcomb feels he's brought something important to the debate.

"This is not about me," says Newcomb. "This is not about my own selfish interest to be governor. It's about really addressing the issues that affect the people of the state."


HAVING THREE CANDIDATES picking away at her from the left may actually help Napolitano in the general election by emphasizing some of her mainstream positions, such as her support for the death penalty and comparatively conservative fiscal stance. Thanks to the competition, she also gets that $409,950 in Clean Elections funding that would otherwise go untapped, which allows her team to give the campaign machine a workout.

They'll need all the practice they can get. The general election will be no coronation. Republicans outnumber Democrats in Arizona 43 percent to 37 percent, with the remaining one in five voters split among independents and other parties. The GOP whipped the Democrats in all but one statewide race in 1998, and the party hasn't lost a gubernatorial election since Evan Mecham won the governor's seat in 1986. (Two of those GOP winners have been driven from office, but that's another story.)

Recent polls show Napolitano about even with presumptive Republican nominee Matt Salmon and running ahead of his primary challenger, Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, but there's a third independent candidate she'll face in the general election: former Democrat Richard Mahoney, who was elected to one term as Secretary of State in 1990. Although his poll numbers remain low, even a small percentage could cost her the election.

More by Jim Nintzel

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